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  • Karlee Skipper

Album Review: "The Tortured Poets Department" - Taylor Swift


Photo: Taylor Swift via Beth Garrabrant// www.bethgarrabrant.com


“All’s fair in love and poetry.” Taylor Swift has laid it all out on the table in her latest project. The Tortured Poets Department is the artist’s eleventh album and her most candid piece of work to date. She announced the record during her Grammy Awards 2024 speech for Best Pop Vocal Album. Fans were left speechless as they had been anticipating an announcement for her fifth rerecording—the next chapter in her inspiring feat to reclaim her masters. As fans awaited the release, Swift revealed the 16-song track list and four special edition variants with a unique bonus track each. When the clock struck midnight on April 19th, we were all excited for a total of 20 new songs. However, Swift had another trick up her sleeve. Two hours after release, she revealed The Tortured Poets Department: The Anthology—a double album. Including the four bonus tracks, there were 15 additional songs, bringing the grand total to 31 brand-new tracks. Throughout the project, her intricate lyrics, genre-blending soundscapes, and mesmerizing vocals take listeners on a comprehensive journey through the singer’s darkest moments. Delving into heartbreak, mental health, fear, and loss, Swift shows a side of herself that she has never revealed, making The Tortured Poets Department her most cathartic and relatable work yet.

 

Track List


Photo: Designed by Elizabeth Siri// Inspired by Taylor Swift - The Tortured Poets Department Artwork via TaylorSwift.com

 

Similar to her 10th album, Midnights, listeners went in unaware of what genre and style the new album would be.  Throughout the 31 songs, Swift blends the sounds of synth-pop, retro pop, soft rock, folk, country, and even classic rock to create her own unique sound. While some tracks were reminiscent of folklore and evermore, such as “loml” and “The Albatross”, others had a more rock-influenced atmosphere that Swift had not fiddled with before, such as “So High School” and “I Can Fix Him (No Really I Can)”. With this dynamic range, the legendary artist has once again demonstrated that there is no genre she cannot triumph.

 

When a new Taylor Swift album is released, Swifties everywhere have an identity crisis due to there being a collection of songs that they do not know the words to. With only 16 songs, this was already going to be a difficult accomplishment. Then, Swift surprised us with 15 additional songs. Each song on the double album is marvelously written and has been simultaneously playing in my head on repeat since the night I stayed up way past my bedtime to listen (Any other full-time employed Swifties out there?). But instead of dissecting all 31 tracks, here are the songs that I believe capture the entire album’s theme or personally resonate with me. 

 

The Tortured Poets Department


“Fortnight (feat. Post Malone)”

Swift kicks off The Tortured Poets Department with the highly-anticipated collaboration with Post Malone. With the latter’s discography, this may be one of the songs that I was most intrigued by prior to the release. The two artists have very differing sounds, however the song is one of Swift’s strongest duets. Her and Malone’s voices beautifully blend together as they share a story of a failed romance. It is no surprise that Swift chose this track as the lead single, complete with a music video starring Ethan Hawke and Josh Charles, because, of course, Swift would make a Dead Poets Society reunion happen. Malone plays the “tortured tragic hero” while Swift is shown being locked up in a psychiatric hospital and undergoing electroshock therapy. This is the embodiment of the line, “I love you. It’s ruining my life.” It is unclear if this affair has truly led her to lose her mind. Or maybe society is only convinced she has gone mad for loving this man, causing them to involuntarily commit her so they can conduct psychiatric experiments. Regardless of Swift’s true meaning, the opening track flawlessly introduces the audience to the overarching theme of the entire album.



“The Tortured Poets Department”

The title track is a crucial component of the album's melancholic vibe. Continuing with the story of the previous track, “The Tortured Poets Department” details a broken relationship that started its decline due to self-sabotaging behavior and pretentious attitudes.  In the chorus, she sings, “You’re not Dylan Thomas// I’m not Patti Smith// This ain’t the Chelsea Hotel// We’re modern idiots.” She tells her muse that they are nothing special or legendary. They are not the iconic poets or the classic hotel, but two people who happened to fall in love. She rejects the notion of romantic nostalgia—a common trope throughout the album.  With this song, Swift clues in her audience on what it really means to be a member of the Tortured Poets Department.


“So Long, London”

Every avid Swiftie knows that on every Taylor Swift album, the fifth track is the “emotionally vulnerable” one. Initially, Swift admitted this was always a weird coincidence, but by Reputation, she began making it intentional. So when the tracklist was revealed, fans were anticipating the heart-wrenching story behind “So Long, London” and they were not left disappointed. The mesmerizing track contains some of Swift’s most gut-wrenching and poetic lyrics. So much so that I could write a dissertation on the one track alone. Immediately the audience is reeled in by the angelic vocals that resemble a traditional church choir. The vocal harmonies are stunning and nothing like it has ever been done by Swift before. However, this is quickly cut off and replaced by a steady synth beat that is reminiscent of a frantic heartbeat, perhaps a nod to her Midnights vault song, “You’re Losing Me”. This track contains a heartbeat as well that is paired with the lyrics: “I can’t find a pulse// My heart won’t start anymore… for you.” This leads the listener to believe the two songs share the same muse. This is even more apparent with the consistent theme of clutching onto a love that is already dead. Asa result, “So Long, London” has earned its spot as one of my top favorite track fives.


“Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?”

Another vital theme to The Tortured Poets Department is Swift’s struggle with her overwhelming level of fame and the toxic rumors that surround her life. “Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?” was one of the first songs that immediately resonated with me due to its dark imagery and intense production. As a fan of fictional anti-heroes, such as The Scarlet Witch from the MCU and Katherine Pierce from The Vampire Diaries, this song immediately made me conjure up images of these powerful and misunderstood women. Swift describes being perceived as a vindictive and manipulative monster who is “fearsome and wretched and wrong.” This song is for anyone who has been labeled as troubled and difficult as a result of standing up for themselves and refusing to be walked all over. The passionate lyrics, especially in the extraordinary bridge, make “Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?” one of the best songs of all time.


“The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived”

“The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived” is simultaneously one of the most tongue-in-cheek and melancholic songs ever written. Swift holds nothing back with the vicious lyrics that describe a lover that left her scorned and disappointed. The chorus takes listeners on an emotional rollercoaster from utter heartbreak to subtle laughter in a split second. Swift sings: “And I don’t even want you back, I just want to know// If rusting my sparkling summer was the goal// And I don’t miss what we had, but could someone give// A message to the smallest man who ever lived?” Throughout the song, the production is led by a soft piano making the track a delicate ballad that influences the somber atmosphere. However, in the bridge, the soundscape explodes as the emotional climax peaks. This then fades back into the outro, where Swift sings a very interesting line. She tells her muse “But you are what you did.” This lyric stands out as it is a stark difference from the line, “Who you are is not what you did” from her Speak Now track, “Innocent”. While these two songs are clearly about two different subjects, it is interesting to see the parallels. Perhaps it is Swift saying that despite the hell she has gone through over the years, this is the one thing done to her that is unequivocally indefensible.


“Clara Bow”

Clara Bow was an old Hollywood film star, known not only for her beauty and talent but also for her mental health struggles due to her fame and love life. Swift has discussed her rocky relationship with her own level of fame since Red (2012) with her song “The Lucky One”. Throughout her discography, she touches on this issue but has not delved into just how dark it is until The Tortured Poets Department.  In “Clara Bow”, Swift discusses being compared to famous starlets, such as Bow and Stevie Nicks. This represents the industry's constant search for the new “It Girl.” One day, you can be the biggest star on the planet and the next day, the media is calling you an old, washed-up has-been who has been replaced by the new and pretty young artist. Swift ends the song with a self-reflective outro that is what she believes to be her fate: “You look like Taylor Swift// In this light, we’re loving it// You’ve got edge, she never did// The future’s bright, dazzling.” This brings the song full circle, leaving the audiences’ jaws on the floor as they are astonished by the self-name-drop. While I truly believe Swift can never and will never be replaced (17 years of being a fan does that to a person), the singer is afraid of being forgotten. However, Swift is a class above all the rest and has solidified herself as a legendary status that will never fade, like Bow and Nicks themselves.


The Anthology


“So High School”

“So High School” is another track that stood out to me the moment I first heard it. The production is reminiscent of a classic 2000s pop-rock song. One that would be played at the end of an iconic teenage rom-com starring Lindsay Lohan or Hilary Duff. Throughout the song, Swift compares her love to being like a cliché high school romance. She references things that were popular when she was in high school, such as American Pie, spin-the-bottle, and Truth or Dare. Despite saying that “nostalgia is a mind’s trick” in the next track, “I Hate It Here”, Swift wrote “So High School” to describe her school-girl-like mindset when thinking about her current relationship. She is head-over-heels for her new partner in a way she has not been since she was a teenager. Because Swift has been writing and releasing music since she was that age, it is interesting to see her come back to her roots as she falls in love with someone who truly deserves her.


“thanK you aIMee”

Everyone has that one person that caused irrevocable damage to their mind. Someone whose life mission seemed to be breaking you down, piece by piece. Swift is no stranger to this feeling. “thanK you aIMee” is a cleverly written track that not only describes the pain this person caused her but also how what they did brought her to where she is today. The lyrics are very tongue-in-cheek as she screams “fuck you, Aimee” to the night sky and states her saint-of-a-mother used to wish the “Aimee” was dead. Listeners cannot help but chuckle as they listen to the feisty lyrics. In the third verse, Swift sings: “And I don’t think you changed much// So I changed your name and any real defining clues// And one day your kid comes home singing// A song that only us two is gonna know is about you.” Despite this, the unique stylization of the title gives a major hint on who the song may be about. And it is well-known that the daughter of the alleged subject enjoys Swift’s music, making the song even that more amusing.


“I Look In People’s Windows”

Personally, this is one of my favorite Taylor Swift tracks ever released. The melodic fingerstyle picking on the guitar instantly caught my attention, setting the mysterious atmosphere of the song. Despite being the shortest track in this collection, “I Look In People’s Windows” packs a lot of punch with its grim message. The solemn lyrics describe Swift’s battle with her level of fame and her inability to feel like a real person— a common theme in her recent releases. She finds herself living vicariously through those who can have a normal life, like having friends over and going out in public. The song may even be a call back to one of her very first tracks, “The Outside”. Since a young age, Swift has always felt like an outsider forced to look upon the relationships of others but never be seen. Furthermore, it is my theory that the title delves deeper into the mundane things she is missing out on. She is only able to “look in people’s windows” if their curtains are drawn— something she cannot do in her own home. She is constantly needing to protect her privacy and safety, leaving the windows blocked. This is an interesting detail that I believe she intentionally put into the song for a hidden meaning.


“The Prophecy”

“The Prophecy” continues the album with a unique guitar soundscape that immediately captures the listeners' attention and keeps them mesmerized until the final note. The beautiful track shares the singer’s desperation to find a love that lasts. She begins praying to anyone who will listen in an effort to change her destiny. After years of dramatic heartache or love that slowly fades, Swift refuses to lose hope. Despite having a heart that’s been beaten and bruised, and being left stranded by men that she thought she could trust, she believes she will find the love she deserves. But only if the fates change the prophecy. The song is a poetic metaphor for the gut-wrenching betrayal Swift has overcome and easily has become one of her most relatable tracks for listeners everywhere.


“Cassandra”

As a fan of Greek mythology, “Cassandra” naturally was one of the first tracks I was immediately drawn to. The song details the story of Cassandra, the woman who was given the gift of telling true prophecies but cursed with never being believed. Swift having this track immediately following “The Prophecy” was a brilliant decision as it maintains a similar theme. The singer is known for her clever metaphors and profound cultural references— something that has made me fall in love with her over and over again. In “Cassandra”, Swift isn’t simply retelling the classic story, but using it to describe her own life. She is imploring the audience to finally believe her after years of calling her a liar and crucifying her for her candor. Whether this is regarding the recent downfall of Kanye West or all of Scooter Braun’s clients dropping him last fall, it is clear that Swift is discussing the unjust scrutiny she has faced throughout her career. Now that her prophetic message has become reality, she only asks: “Do you believe me now?” While every song on the project is incredible and I have my handful of favorites, it is my opinion that “Cassandra” is the most intriguing and witty track, earning its spot at the top of my list.


“Peter”

Not only do I enjoy a good metaphor, but literary references in songs are one of my favorite tropes. “Wonderland” from Swift’s album 1989 has been one of my top tracks since its release. So, it comes as no surprise that I immediately fell in love with “Peter”. This is a reference to the classic storybook tale and beloved Disney film, Peter Pan. Throughout the song, Swift refers to the subject as a lost boy who never grew up. In the chorus, she sings: “You said you were gonna grow up// Then you were gonna come find me// Words from the mouths of babes// Promises oceans deep// But never to keep.” Her muse led her on and made her believe that they would come back for her once they matured. But just like the legendary storybook character, he will never grow up. In the end, “the woman who sits by the window has turned out the light.” Swift declares to her former lover that she has officially given up on them and no longer wants them to come around, even if they do manage to grow up. Just like many other tracks in this album, Swift utilizes clever analogies to express her overwhelming hurt and betrayal.


Photo: Taylor Swift via Beth Garrabrant// www.bethgarrabrant.com 


The Tortured Poets Department is Swift’s most complex, personal, and emotional album. For the first time in her career, she released a collection of tracks that came directly from the heart, meant for true fans to consume. She did not cater to the general public by making a glitter-pen pop anthem with simple lyrics and a catchy beat. Instead, she let her thoughts flow freely on paper to craft her darkest and most profound songs. With no single style to label the album, Swift has once again proven that she is dynamic enough to be her own unique genre. As a writer drawn to the dark side, I am now a proud member of The Tortured Poets Department. This meeting is hereby adjourned.


Written By Karlee Skipper



*copyright not intended. Fair use act, section 107.

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